Armenian Christianity, Syriac contacts with

Armenia, the geographical area of Armenian Christianity and culture, borders the homeland of Syr. Christianity. For centuries, Arameans and Armenians lived together in parts of northern Mesopotamia and northern Syria. The main cities of Syr. Christianity, Edessa (Armenian Uṙhay) and Nisibis (Armenian Mcbin) had a mixed population, which included Syrians and Armenians. Within the Sasanian Empire, the lines of demarcation between the Ch. of E. and the Armenian Church were very porous. The E.-Syr. ecclesiastical province of Beth ʿArbaye, which since the synod of Isḥaq (410) had Nisibis as its metropolitan see, included the dioceses of Arzun, Qardu, Beth Zabdai, Beth Rahimai, and Beth Moksaye, which all had large Armenian populations and which occasionally show up as dioceses of the Armenian Church. In these and in other borderlands, there must have been a significant amount of bilingualism, reflecting a ‘veritable interpenetration’ between the two groups (Garsoïan 1992, 63).

In the 1st cent. BC, the western part of Armenia was incorporated into the Roman Empire, while the larger part (‘Great Armenia’) remained within the Iranian sphere of influence, at times enjoying independence, at times ruled by Parthian and later Sasanian monarchs. Around 387 the Roman and Sasanian Empires agreed on a formal partition of Armenia (even though the frontier subsequently shifted). Despite the fact that in its formative period Armenian Christianity, not unlike Syr. Christianity, was divided over two empires, this did not lead — as in the case of the Syrians — to doctrinal division. This is often attributed to a stronger sense of ethnic and cultural identity among the Armenians than among the Syrians. In the Islamic period Armenians occasionally had their own kingdom, such as under the Bagratid dynasty, from the end of the 9th to the middle of the 11th cent. From the late 12th cent. to 1375, an independent Armenian kingdom existed in Cilicia (‘Little Armenia’), where many Armenians had settled. Cilician Armenia accepted union with Rome at the Council of Sis in 1307, but this union, which failed to receive support outside Cilicia, came to an end with the demise of the Cilician kingdom. In the Ottoman Empire, Armenians at first flourished. The patriarchate of Constantinople (Istanbul) was created to represent Armenian interests (and often other Christians’ interests as well) at the capital. Armenians also lived in parts of Persia and Russia, and there were diaspora communities as far as Lemberg (Galicia, present-day Lwow in Poland). Significant emigration to Europe and North America started in the middle of the 19th  cent. The early 20th cent. saw the Armenian genocide, which largely coincided with the Sayfo, and which was followed by further dispersion. The short-lived independent Armenian Republic (1918– 1920) became part of the Soviet Union in 1920, to regain its independence only in September 1991.

Christianity came to Armenia no later than the 3rd cent. and the Armenian Church was first organized by Gregory the Illuminator in the early 4th cent. An important factor in the development of Armenian Christianity was the invention of the Armenian script by Maštoc‘ (Mesrop), traditionally dated in or around 407, and preceded by Maštoc‘’s travels through Syria and Edessa. This was followed by a period of intense translation activity, from both Greek and Syriac. Prior to the invention of their own script, Armenians used Greek and Syriac as their literary and liturgical languages.

Among the translations of the earliest period (first half of the 5th cent.) are several Syriac texts, such as the Demonstrations of Aphrahaṭ, transmitted in Armenian under the name of Yaʿqub of Nisibis (ed. Lafontaine), several works by Ephrem (Armenian: Ephrem Asori ‘the Assyrian’ or ‘Syrian’), and a short treatise attributed to Bp. Aitalaha of Edessa, which is not preserved in Syriac. Ephrem’s Armenian works include the undoubtedly genuine ‘Hymns on Nicomedia’, which were written shortly after 358, and of which only a few Syriac fragments exist (ed. Renoux), and the Commentary on the Diatessaron (ed. Leloir). While for these two works (as well as for Aphrahaṭ) we are dealing with quite faithful translations of Syriac originals, the relationship to the Syriac original is more problematic for other works attributed to Ephrem, such as a collection of hymns (ed. Mariès and Mercier), which seem to contain Syriac materials, but may represent later rewritings, and an anti-Marcionite exposition of the Gospel (ed. Egan), which is probably not by Ephrem (see Bundy, against the view of the editor), even though a 4th-cent. Syriac original is very likely. In addition to the translations of originally Syriac works, some Greek patristic works were translated into Armenian not from Greek, but from an earlier Syriac translation. The two most well-known examples are Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History and Basil of Caesarea’s Homilies on the Hexaemeron. In the earliest layers of Armenian biblical and liturgical texts as well, the mark of Armenia’s early contacts with the Syriac world is clearly visible. Among indigenous Armenian authors who are well informed about Syriac Christianity and write about it or borrow themes or interpretations from it are Eznik of Kołb (author of a work known as either ‘Against the sects’ or ‘On God’), Koriwn (author of ‘The Life of Maštoc‘’), the author of the ‘Teaching of Gregory’ (incorporated into the ‘History of Agathangelos’), and the author of the ‘Epic histories’ (formerly known as Faustus of Byzantium).

In the aftermath of the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council’s condemnation of Antiochene theology, Armenian Christianity moved away from the Syriac sphere of influence and increasingly turned to the Greek imperial church. The Council of Chalcedon (451) at first did not have an impact on the Armenians, who at the same time were involved in the Battle of Avarayr (the outcome of which led to full Sasanian rule over Armenia). It is only in the course of the 6th cent. that church leaders and councils determined Armenia’s own theological position, partly in response to missionary activity carried out by representatives of the emerging Syr. Miaphysite Church and of the Dyophysite E.-Syr. Church. Even though the Armenians repeatedly took a position against dyophysitism, associated with Nestorius as well as with the Ch. of E., a straightforward rejection of the Council of Chalcedon only took place at the Council of Dvin in 607. From the 6th-cent. documents of the Armenian church (preserved in the ‘Book of Letters’) it appears that, in contrast with the Syr. Orth. and Coptic Miaphysite churches, the works of Severus of Antioch did not obtain normative status in Armenia, but rather that a form of aphthartodocetism gradually became the official doctrine (regarding the body of Christ as inherently incorruptible). The question of whether this was associated with Julian of Halicarnassus (whose works seem not to have been translated into Armenian), Severus’s opponent, or whether this had different roots and was nourished perhaps by the writings of Philoxenos of Mabbug, some of which were translated into Armenian (see Ter-Minassiantz, 147–51, and more recently Cowe), has not yet been fully settled. Due to this different orientation within the Miaphysite tradition, there was always some distance between the Armenian Orth. and the Syr. Orth. Church, and occasionally some tension (Ter-Minassiantz). A list of historical complaints of the Syrians against the Armenians is found in treatises by Yuḥanon X bar Shushan and Dionysios bar Ṣalibi.

In spite of the theological complexities in their relationship, contacts and exchanges between Syr. and Armenian Christians continued throughout the centuries. In the early Islamic period, both the Ch. of E. and the Syr. Orth. Church had a presence in parts of the Armenian lands. Since the 8th cent., there was in Khilat (or Akhlat), on the western shore of Lake Van, an E.-Syr. metropolitan bp. as well as a Syr. Orth. bp. (Fiey 2003, 1427), while an E.-Syr. bp. also is attested for Bardaʿa (Armenian Partaw), on the Terter River (Van Lantschoot 1932). The E.-Syr. metropolitan see of Khilat was later given up as an independent see and added to Nisibis, whose metropolitan bp. in the 13th cent. had ‘Nisibis and Armenia’ in his title (Fiey, Nisibe, 106). Translation activity from Syriac into Armenian went on. For example, some of Yaʿqub of Edessa’s exegetical work found its way into an Armenian commentary attributed to Ephrem (ed. Mathews), and the 9th-cent. Commentary on the Gospel of John by Nonos of Nisibis is preserved only in Armenian.

Intense contacts on all levels took place in the period of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. Many Syrians must have settled in the relative safety of Cilicia, where the Syr. Orth. had bp. sees in Adana, Anazarba (ʿAyn Zarba), Sis (patriarchal residence between 1292 and the early 15th cent.), and Tarsus. There were Syr. Orth. monasteries in Cilicia as well, in particular those of Gawikat (or Kawikhat) and Paksimeṭ (or Baksimeṭ). Michael Rabo, in his Chronicle, provides a wealth of information on Armenian history; in addition, one of the appendices to the Chronicle (no. 5) explicitly deals with the Armenians. Of Michael’s Chronicle two different translations were produced, one in 1246, by the Armenian author Vardan Arewelc‘i in collaboration with the Edessene monk Yeshuʿ (of Ḥeṣno d-Kifo, see Barsoum), the other in 1248 by Vardan alone (possibly after Yeshuʿ’s death). The translation was made from Michael’s autograph, which along with other mss. had been transferred from the Dayro d-Mor Barṣawmo to Hṙomklay (Qalʿa Rumayta), where the Syr. Orth Patr. Ignatius Dawid resided for some time and where a Syr. Orth. church had been built. Both translations present a periphrastic and much shortened version of Michael’s Chronicle (Schmidt 1996). Other translations from Syriac made in Cilician Armenia include the ‘Syro-Roman Lawbook’ and the ‘Sententiae Syriacae’ (see Juridical literature); homilies by Yaʿqub of Serugh (Weitenberg, 349 and 350); the Psalm Commentary by Daniel of Ṣalaḥ; and several works of medical content. A unique work on horse-medicine (written ca. 1300) was translated from Arabic, but the author explicitly identifies himself as a veterinary of Syrian descent and creed. Translations typically resulted from the collaboration of an Armenian and a Syriac native speaker (Weitenberg, with further references). While all the examples quoted here concern Syriac writings translated into Armenian, an interesting case of a Syrian author’s interest in Armenian may be seen in Bar ʿEbroyo’s biblical commentaries, which in particular in the commentary on Psalms contain about 160 quotations of, or references to, the Armenian Bible (Göttsberger). The fall of the Cilician kingdom (1375) brought the close contacts between the Armenian and Syr. Orth. intellectual elite to an end, even though for the subsequent centuries further evidence exists of the ongoing interaction between Syriac and Armenian Christians (see, e.g., Kaufhold).

Among the cities in which Armenians and Syrians lived together for many centuries, Edessa assumes a special position. The Armenian presence there can be traced back to a very early period and some sources (including Yaʿqub of Edessa, in his Chronicle) present king Abgar and the original population of Edessa as Armenian. The story of Abgar’s conversion to Christianity became widely popular in Armenian, whereby an increasing Armenization took place, from its first attestation in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History and the 5th-cent. work attributed to Labubna, or Łerubna (the Edessene king’s scribe who is also mentioned in the Syr. Teaching of Addai) to the rewritten versions in Moses Xorenac‘i’s ‘History of the Armenians’ (probably 9th cent.) and the 10th-cent. historians Thomas Arcruni and Uxtanes. When the short-lived Crusade principality of Edessa fell to the Seljuks in 1144, the Armenians were bewildered as much as the Syr. Christians were (see Dionysios bar Ṣalibi), as is shown by the lament written by Nerses Shnorhali (ET van Lint), the later Cath. of all Armenians (1166–99), who is known for his friendly relationship with Michael Rabo.

The contacts between Armenian and Syr. Christians are also reflected in art, as is illustrated in the 9th-cent. illuminated Gospel ms. of Queen Mlke (Venice, San Lazzaro 1144), which has been connected with the Syriac Rabbula Gospels (Stone et al.).

For the more recent period (16th–18th cent.) a number of Syriac-Armenian lexica are attested, reflecting language contact and bilingualism. Both within these lexica and outside of them, interesting examples of boundary crossing between the two langauges are found in Armenian texts written in Syriac script and in (at least) one Syriac text written in Armenian script (Van Lantschoot 1964, Brock, Schmidt 2007, Takahashi and Weitenberg [forthcoming]).

See Fig. 7 and 8.

    Primary Sources

    • G. E.  Egan, Saint Ephrem. An exposition to the Gospel (CSCO 291–2; 1968).
    • N. G.  Garsoïan, The Epic Histories attributed to P‘awstos Buzand (Buzandaran Patmutʽiwnk ̔) (1989). (ET)
    • G.  Lafontaine, La version arménienne des œuvres d’Aphraate le Syrien (3 vols; CSCO 382–3, 405–6, and 423–4; 1977–80).
    • L.  Leloir, Saint Ephrem. Commentaire de l’Évangile concordant (CSCO 137 and 145; 1953 and 1964).
    • Th. van Lint, ‘Seeking meaning in catastrophe. Nersēs Šnorhali’s Lament on Edessa’, in East and West in the Crusader States. Context — contacts — confrontations, vol. II, ed. K. Ciggaar and H. Teule (OLA 92; 1999), 29–105.
    • L.  Mariès and Ch. Mercier, Hymnes de Saint Ephrem conservées en version arménienne (PO 30.1; 1961).
    • E. G.  Mathews, Jr., The Armenian Commentary on Genesis attributed to Ephrem the Syrian (CSCO 572–3; 1998).
    • E. G.  Mathews, Jr., The Armenian Commentary on Exodus-Deuteronomy attributed to Ephrem the Syrian (CSCO 587–8; 2001).
    • A.  Mingana, The work of Dionysius Barṣalībī against the Armenians (Woodbrooke Studies 4; 1931; repr. 2010).
    • Ch. Renoux, Memre sur Nicomédie (PO 37.2–3; 1975).

    Secondary Sources

    • Barsoum, Scattered pearls, 446 and 458–9.
    • S. P.  Brock, ‘Armenian in Syriac script’, in Armenian Studies. Etudes arméniennes. In memoriam H.   Berbérian, ed. D.  Kouymjian (1986), 75–80.
    • D.  Bundy, ‘The Anti-Marcionite Commentary on the Lucan Parables (Pseudo-Ephrem A): Images in tension’, LM 103 (1990), 111–23.
    • S. P.  Cowe, ‘Philoxenus of Mabbog and the Synod of Manazkert’, ARAM 5 (1993), 15–29.
    • A.  Drost-Abgarjan, ‘Zur Rezeption der Abgar-Legende in Armenien’, in Edessa in hellenistisch-römischer Zeit. Religion, Kultur und Politik zwischen Ost und West, ed. L. Greisiger et al. (BTS 116; 2009), 69–74.
    • Fiey, Nisibe, métropole syriaque orientale.
    • Fiey, Pour un Oriens christianus novus, 47–8, 58–9, 158, 166, 169, 269.
    • Fiey, ‘Khilat’, in DHGE , vol. 28 (2003), 1427.
    • N. G.  Garsoïan, ‘Quelques précisions préliminaires sur le schisme entre les églises byzantine et arménienne au sujet du Concile de Chalcédoine. III. Les évêchés méridionaux limi-trophes de la Mésopotamie’, REArm 23 (1992), 39–40.
    • eadem, L’église arménienne et le grand schisme d’Orient (CSCO 574; 1999).
    • J.  Göttsberger, ‘Die syro-armenischen Bibelzitate des Barhebraeus’, ZAW 21 (1901), 101–27.
    • H.  Kaufhold, ‘Notizen zur späten Geschichte des Barṣaumô-Klosters’, Hugoye 3.2 (2002).
    • P.  Kawerau, Die jakobitische Kirche im Zeitalter der syrischen Renaissance. Idee und Wirklichkeit (1955), 68–70.
    • E. G.  Mathews, Jr., ‘Armenian hymn IX, On marriage, by Saint Ephrem the Syrian’, Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies 9 (1996–7), 55–63.
    • E. G.  Mathews, Jr., ‘Saint Ephrem the Syrian. Armenian dispute hymns between Virginity and Chastity’, REArm 28 (2001–2), 143–69.
    • E. G.  Mathews, Jr., ‘Early Armenian and Syrian Contact: Reflections on Koriwn’s Life of Maštoc‘’, St. Nersess Theological Review 7 (2002), 5–27.
    • E. G.  Mathews, Jr., ‘The Early Armenian Hermit: Further reflections on the Syriac sources’, St. Nersess Theological Review 10 (2005) [= Festschrift in Honor of Professor Nina G. Garsoïan], 141–67.
    • R.  Murray, ‘A marriage for all eternity: The consecration of a Syrian bride for Christ’, Sobornost / ECR 11 (1989), 65–9.
    • A. B.  Schmidt, ‘Die zweifache armenische Rezension der syrischen Chronik Michaels des Grossen’, LM 109 (1996), 299–319.
    • A. B.  Schmidt, ‘Die armenisch-syrischen Beziehungen im Spiegel der kilikischen Übersetzungsliteratur’, in Armenologie in Deutschland. Beiträge zum ersten deutschen Armenologen-Tag, ed. A. Drost-Abgarjan and H. Goltz (SOK 35; 2005), 119–26.
    • eadem, ‘Arménien et syriaque’, in Arménie. La magie de l’écrit, ed. C. Mutafian (Exhibition catalogue Marseille, 2007), 345–48.
    • M. E.  Stone, D.  Kouymjian, and H.  Lehmann, Album of Armenian Paleography (2002), 118–21. (on Mlke Gospels)
    • H.  Takahashi and J. J. S. Weitenberg, ‘On the shorter Syriac-Armenian word list in ms. Yale Syriac 9’, JCSSS 10 (2010), 68–83. (along with other papers in the same issue dealing with Syro-Armenian contacts)
    • E.  Ter-Minassiantz, Die armenische Kirche in ihren Beziehungen zu den syrischen Kirchen bis zum Ende des 13. Jahrhunderts (TU N.F. 11.4; 1904).
    • R.  Thomson, A bibliography of classical Armenian literature to 1500 AD (CC; 1995), esp. 29–88. (‘Translations into Armenian’)
    • R.  Thomson, ‘Syrian Christianity and the Conversion of Armenia’, in Die Christianisierung des Kaukasus/The Christianization of Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia, Albania), ed. W.  Seibt (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-historische Klasse. Denkschriften 296. Veröffentlichungen der Kommission für Byzantinistik 9; 2002), 159–69.
    • R.  Thomson, ‘Supplement to A bibliography of classical Armenian literature to 1500 AD: Publications 1993–2005’, LM 120 (2007), 163–223, esp. 169–79. (‘Armenian translations of foreign authors’)
    • A.  Van Lantschoot, ‘Bardaa’, in DHGE , vol. 6 (1932), 758–9.
    • A.  Van Lantschoot, ‘Un texte arménien en lettres syriaques’, in Mélanges E. Tisserant, vol. 3 (SeT 233; 1964), 419–28.
    • J. J. S.  Weitenberg, ‘Armeno-Syrian cultural relations in the Cilician period (12th–14th c.)’, in The Syriac Renaissance, ed. H. Teule et al. (ECS 9; 2010), 341–352.
    • G. Winkler, ‘An obscure chapter in Armenian church history’, REArm (1985), 85–180.

How to Cite This Entry

Lucas Van Rompay , “Armenian Christianity, Syriac contacts with,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay,

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Lucas Van Rompay , “Armenian Christianity, Syriac contacts with,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018),

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Van Rompay, Lucas. “Armenian Christianity, Syriac contacts with.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018.

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